Jim Owczarski, 9 November 2018
And now, as I write this, fall has come to the American Midwest. Football (our flavor) is being played in earnest, a chill is felt in the air, and the leaves have begun to turn.
That means it is time to think of Jena-Auerstedt one last time.
Unlike Waterloo which has been distilled to consims many times — only the unwashed say too many — the double-battle of 14 October 1806 is more slightly covered. This is not to say there are not some fine offerings, and I would like to take a moment to introduce you to the five I like best.
Number Five: Prussia 20 from Victory Point Games
Jena 20 was originally a magazine game and the second in the Napoleonic 20 series that began, unsurprisingly, with Waterloo 20 in 2008. Its magazine ancestor had the spirit of the system within it, but it was an unlovely child, particularly as concerned the map. It remains a pity that GMT abandoned plans to bring the quality of Fading Glory to this campaign, but, now packaged with a companion battle of Eylau, Jena 20 is an excellent small-footprint introduction to the campaign and provides room to explore a number of interesting alternative outcomes.
The “20” games are intended to be low-density with no more than 20 counters on the map at any time. As a result the units are high level, corps in this instance, and the map scale is approximately one km per hex. Game play is card “influenced” rather than driven with commanders being able to throw curve balls at one another throughout play. This is a simple game with differential-based combat resolution, but the choices are historical ones as are some of the frustrations that will afflict both sides. The way it uses morale points both as a determinant of victory as well as a resource that can be expended that the critical moment also is well done.
If you come to like this system as I have, it is easy to recommend the Napoleonic 20 Expansion Kit. It includes some fun bits of period chrome — I am fond of the combat matrix system that reminds me of a few classic Avalon Hill games — as well as a mini-game covering the battle of Hanau.
Number Four: Napoleon: 1806 from Shakos Games
If you read my earlier review, you might have suspected this would show up somewhere. I said much there, so I will instead take a moment to talk about two games that this game has, in a measure, replaced.
Kevin Zucker’s 1806: Rossbach Avenged and Ed Wimble’s Jena! are both very good games. The former is an iteration of Mr. Zucker’s well-regarded “Six Days of Glory” system. The latter is a sibling of the earlier L’Armee du Nord, both published by Clash of Arms games. They both fit more meters per hex onto their maps than Jena 20, but the maps in both cases are truly lovely and are massive in the bargain. I have always given the slight edge to Rick Barber’s work in Jena!, but both are well done and reward close study.
The reason Napoleon: 1806 has supplanted them for me relates to the play of the game. Both of the older games, for slightly different reasons, force a significant amount of maneuver (read: map marching) on the player before matters come to cases. I understand that operational maneuver is important to Napoleonic battles, but the newer offering manages it far more elegantly.
As impressive as the maps in the older games are, the combatants can seem adrift in a sea of negative space. I will not go so far as those who suggest these games fall into the trap of substituting a big map and a fistful of historically-accurate unit counters for game design — both designers in this case are legends and they did not miss here — but some paring away would have been welcome. Also, while Mr. Zucker has updated his rule sets over the years, the rules in the Clash of Arms games as shipped came with a fair number of questions, not all of which have been resolved.
Forgive my wandering to and fro here, but I do not want it missed that I would happily play any of these games tomorrow. If I am to choose, however, the quality, clarity, ease of access, and overall experience offered by Napoleon: 1806 makes it the preferred game for me.
Number Three: The Coming Storm
Kevin Zucker can call this system whatever he likes, but this game and its siblings will always, in my eyes, be the children of Napoleon’s Last Battles, a game I have elsewhere listed as one of the best ever created on the Waterloo campaign.
The rules have grown over the years adding a fog of war system, better-elaborated supply, and significant revisions to the combat system, although it remains insufficiently bloody for some. Cards have been added to throw a bit of flavor and extra randomness into the game and increase its replay value. Components are now the products of more recent printing technologies and both maps and counters are to a high standard.
Since I am editorializing, though, I will continue to dun the Operational Studies Group for never including enough counters to properly cover units marching out of their opponents’ line of sight. This drives me crazy and I do not care for the wooden sleds some have taken to.
Well-regarded for the quality of its historical research, this remains a system of only modest difficulty. The scenarios in this four-pack are all very good, with the “approach to battle” scenarios offering more opportunities to explore historical alternatives while the set-pieces are less demanding of the player’s time.
I am a fan of all the games on this list. This one, however, and that in first position are the two that give me the greatest feeling of what it might have been like to be the Emperor of France and the King of Prussia, and that definitely should count for something.
Full disclosure, I have been a playtester for a number of games released by John Tiller Software. I was not on this title.
For PC gamers, the Tiller games are old friends that have been around since Battleground: Bulge, released during the first Clinton administration. Dr. Tiller has been poking at the system ever since. In any of its iterations it is not a particularly lovely game, although modders have done much to improve its looks.
Also, some have criticized the series’ user interface, particularly its click-intensive approach and that it has evolved relatively little. I consider the latter a feature rather than a bug. I have never found the UI opaque or obscure and the obvious similarities to hex-and-counter games makes the whole thing very comfortable and familiar for me.
Campaign: Jena-Auerstedt shares the series’ high level of historical research in both its maps and units. There are dozens of scenarios ranging from little fights like Schleitz all the way up to a single-map campaign that runs just a bit south of 400 turns. It is, for me, the best way to play this battle out at the battalion level.
And, yes, since some will ask, this means I prefer it to 1977’s La Bataille d’Auerstaedt. Some of this may be my present gaming circumstances, lacking as I do a group willing to commit to LABAT as the lifestyle it is. Some of it is certainly the robust multi-player in the Tiller game that, for reasons that evade me, much more modern developers have been unable to replicate. And it may also be the strong on-line community that exists around the Tiller series meaning I never will want for a game. Whatever the case, I will never disparage (or turn down if anyone is asking) a rousing weekend-long LABAT marathon. Day in and day out, though, Campaign: Jena-Auerstedt is my preference.
Number One: “The Flight of the Eagle” — Le Vol de l’Aigle
This is Napoleonic war in a modestly-sized blue box. The box contains a scale map of a theater of operations from one of the great early campaigns (Jena-Auerstedt is in volume I), several sheets of counters depicting the divisions that fought in those campaigns, and, in the first volume, a very simple set of rules for playing double-blind Kriegsspiels using the foregoing components.
You can question some of the orders of battle; you can turn up your nose at the simplified “bucket of dice” combat system; and it is fair to point out that, to really make this work, you need a lot of people and a fair amount of time. As much as I would like to try playing this over a long weekend, though, I think playing this as a correspondence game (e-mail particularly) makes it a leisurely, gentle experience that is rare in modern gaming.
The videos for the last Jena-Auerstedt game played using this system are here.
While I have now taken to running these games via Tabletop Simulator, I think these videos give a fair sense of the range of emotions that players experience when playing a game in which they cannot see everything, where enemies suddenly appear from nowhere, and where commanders can spend days and weeks wondering where a unit has gone off to. For all its abstractions, it has always felt to me like commanding a Napoleonic army without any risk of saddle sores or musket balls.
And that, I think, is that. I am grateful for those who have come this far on my perambulations and hope you will stick around for my next trip which will be to Vienna and the battlefields of Aspern-Essling and Wagram.